My World for a Kleenex

I walked out the door, into the parking lot and to my car. The class was over. Had I taught anything at all? Did the threat of a test open any minds to Buddha, no-self, compassion?

          A push on the button unlocks the door and I step onto the torn and dusty floor mat. My right knee is weak and I always need a boost from my hand, as I swing the leg in.

          But off to the right is an oddly colored, boxy little compact car, and the person there is still. A woman’s hair is just a bit disheveled.

          I put my key into the ignition, but stop my hand. I try not to look, but I look. She is not starting her car. Her head is down, forehead almost touching her steering wheel.

          I try again not to turn my head. My eyes shift. She is not moving. She is moving. Her head goes back and forth. Her hands up, palms cupped over her eyes.

          She is crying. She is sobbing.

          I consider: A pain; perhaps a life-crashing pain. I could help, but what? A stranger stopping to help—would she welcome, recoil in shame, more likely lock the doors—a strange, old man at her car window!

          Her cheeks now moist, now dripping.

          What could I possibly do or say? I turn the key, back out, creep out of the parking space and down the row.

          Now I double back. This is a moment. Something is happening here, and shall I crawl away from it on my belly?

          Just perhaps I can see. I turn back down the next row of cars, and as I circle around I see that odd, copper colored box of a car back out and drive away.

          Two days later, I’ve got it. I could have said nothing, but pulled out a few Kleenex and put them up against her window.

          Yes, that would work. But the moment for that will never be.

          When I was thirteen years old I could not forget myself. I could not lose myself in the face of another because every time we faced, I knew they were looking at my pimples. I didn’t know how bad or how good it was, not losing myself, until my uncle spoke to me. Just a passing word, but he said, “Does it bother you, having pimples like that?”

          Before I could answer he said, “Don’t let it. They will clear up.”

          The pimples lasted for years and their marks are still there to be seen. It all happened ages ago, but I remember it hot and bright. An old world cracked open at that moment and a new world began to emerge. For me it emerged, a world of not bothering about some things but bothering about others.

          Losing myself to find myself in other people and in other moments—every few years, every new chapter in my life, every new cracking open,  I do a little more bothering about that.

          Zen Master Dogen, long ago in Japan, told of the haunting truth that the whole moon and the whole great sky can be seen in a drop of dew on a tiny blade of grass. He knew that big things are in the little. He knew that one moment is as good as the next for this. You can see it on a day the stock market crashes… again. You can see it when you have pimples, or when you look like an old geezer in a parking lot.

          But seeing it is also a matter of forgetting self to remember self.

          Lucy is an old, blind woman who lives in a nursing home. She sits and thinks about being a woman with a big, lively mind in a tiny room crammed with four beds and four strangers who often don’t know where they are,  and who cry out in the night—a place where so much is mindless.

One day an old friend comes to visit; but this old friend brings someone else.

          The moment this someone else steps over the threshold, she stops in disbelief and points to Lucy. “I remember you. You were nice to me.”

          Lucy was nice over 70 years before, in a church basement, when this visitor and she were pre-teens wiggling their way through religious instruction classes. Toward this stranger in her younger version of self all the other kids made faces and wisecracks. Lucy was decent.

          All these decades later, for the life of her, Lucy could not remember how she was decent. It could not have been a big deal. It must have been small. But it was the world—the moon in the dewdrop for this stranger. And she never forgot.

          Lucy had lost all memory of her small, decent gestures. She had lost herself. Today she had found herself.

          Jesus said, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple, will have a disciple’s reward.”  That’s in Matthew 10:42. 

          Isn’t that the way it has always been? It’s not the grand and heroic, but the small gesture that accomplishes the most. The grand often comes from the ego. On the street, hands and voice raised, “don’t forget to get my name right to put with that picture you snapped.” The small ones contain new worlds. When we perform them, we forget, as we forget our selves, only to find ourselves in the forgettable people all around.

          But, ready or not, when we receive those gestures, we are never the same.


About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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